The Abominations of Modern Society

T. De Witt Talmage, Brooklyn, January 1st, 1872


Pride of city is natural to men, in all times, if they live or have lived in a metropolis noted for dignity or prowess. Caesar boasted of his native Rome; Lycurgus of Sparta; Virgil of Andes; Demosthenes of Athens; Archimedes of Syracuse; and Paul of Tarsus. I should suspect a man of base-heartedness, who carried about with him no feeling of delight in regard to the place of his residence; who gloried not in its arts, or arms, or behavior; who looked with no exultation upon its evidences of prosperity, its artistic embellishments, and its scientific attainments.

I have noticed that men never like a place where they have not behaved well. Swarthout did not like New York; nor did Dr. Webster like Boston. Men who have free rides in prison-vans never like the city that furnishes the vehicle. When I see in history Argos, Rhodes, Smyrna, Chios, Colophon, and several other cities claiming Homer, I conclude that Homer behaved well. Let us not war against this pride of city, nor expect to build up ourselves by pulling others down. Let Boston have its Common, its Faneuil Hall, its Coliseum, and its Atlantic Monthly. Let Philadelphia talk about its Mint, and Independence Hall, and Girard College. When I find a man living in either of those places, who has nothing to say in favor of them, I feel like asking him, "What base thing did you do, that you do not like your native city?"

New York is a goodly city. It is one city on both sides of the river. The East River is only the main artery of its great throbbing life. After a while four or five bridges will span the water, and we shall be still more emphatically one than now. When, therefore, I say "New York City," I mean more than a million people. That which tends to elevate a part, elevates all. That which blasts part, blasts all. Sin is a giant; and he comes to the Hudson or Connecticut River, and passes it, as easily as we step across a figure in the carpet. The blessing of God is an angel; and when it stretches out its two wings, one of them hovers over that, and the other over this. In infancy, the great metropolis was laid down by the banks of the Hudson. Its infancy was as feeble as that of Moses, sleeping in the bulrushes by the Nile; and like Miriam, there our fathers stood and watched it. The royal spirit of American commerce came down to the water to bathe; and there she found it. She took it in her arms, and the child grew and waxed strong; and the ships of foreign lands brought gold and spices to its feet; and, stretching itself up into the proportions of a metropolis, it has looked up to the mountains, and off upon the sea—one of the mightiest of the energies of American civilization.

The character of the founder of a city will be seen for many years in its inhabitants. Romulus impressed his life upon Rome. The Pilgrims relax not their hold upon the cities of New England. William Penn has left Philadelphia an inheritance of integrity and fair dealing; and on any day in that city you may see in the manners, customs, and principles of its people, his tastes, his coat, his hat, his wife's bonnet, and his plain meeting-house. The Hollanders still wield an influence over New York. Grand Old New York! What southern thoroughfare was ever smitten by pestilence, when our physicians did not throw themselves upon the sacrifice! What distant land has cried out in the agony of famine, and our ships have not put out with bread-stuffs! What street of Damascus, or Beyrout, or Madras that has not heard the step of our missionaries! What struggle for national life, in which our citizens have not poured their blood into the trenches! What gallery of exquisite are, in which our painters have not hung their pictures! What department of literature or science to which our scholars have not contributed! I need not speak of our public schools, where the children of the cordwainer, and milkman, and glass-blower stand by the side of the flattered sons of millionnaires and merchant princes; or of the insane asylums on all these islands, where they who came out cutting themselves, among the tombs, now sit, clothed and in their right mind; or of the Magdalen asylums, where the lost one of the street comes to bathe the Savior's feet with her tears, and wipes them with the hairs of her head, confiding in the pardon of Him who said—"Let him who is without sin cast the first stone at her."

I need not speak of the institutions for the blind, the lame, the deaf and the dumb, for the incurables, for the widow, the orphan, and the outcast; or of the thousand-armed machinery that sends streaming down from the reservoir the clear, bright, sparkling, God-given water that rushes through our aqueducts, and dashes out of the hydrants, and tosses up in our fountains, and hisses in our steam-engines, and showers out the conflagration, and sprinkles from the baptismal font of our churches; and with silver note, and golden sparkle, and crystalline chime, says to hundreds of thousands of our population, in the authentic words of Him who made it—"I will—be clean!"

Those who live in any of the American cities have a goodly heritage; and it is in no depreciation of our advantages that I speak—but because, in the very contrast with our opportunities and mission, THE ABOMINATIONS are tenfold more abominable. The sources from which I will bring the array of facts will be police, detective, and alms-house reports; city missionaries' explorations, and the testimony of the abandoned and sin-blasted, who, about to take the final plunge, have staggered back just for a moment, to utter the wild shriek of their warning, and the agonizing wail of their despair. I shall call upon you to consider the drunkenness, the stock-gambling, the rampant dishonesties, the club-houses so far as they are nefarious, the excess of fashion, the horrors of unchastity, the bad books and impure newspapers, and the whole range of sinful amusements; and with the plough-share of truth turn up the whole field.

If we could call up the victims themselves, they would give the most impressive story. People knew not how Turner, the painter, got such vivid conceptions of a storm at sea, until they heard the story that oftentimes he had been lashed to the deck in the midst of the tempest, in order that he might study the wrath of the sea. Those who have themselves been tossed on the wave of infamous transgressions could give us the most vivid picture of what it is to sin and to die. With hand tremulous with exhausting disease, and hardly able to get the accursed bowl to his lips—put into such a hand the pencil, and it can sketch, as can no one else, the darkness, the fire, the wild terror, the headlong pitch, and the hell of those who have surrendered themselves to iniquity.

While we dare only come near the edge, and, balancing ourselves a while, look off, and our head swims, and our breath catches—those can tell the story best who have fallen to the depths with wilder dash, than glacier from the top of a Swiss cliff, and stand, in their agony, looking up for a relief that comes not, and straining their eyes for a hope that never dawns—crying, "O God!" "O God!" It is terrible to see a lion dashing for escape against the sides of his cage; but a more awful thing it is to behold a man, caged in bad habit, trying to break out—blood on the soul, blood on the cage.

Others may throw garlands upon Sin, picturing the overhanging fruits which drop in her pathway, and make every step graceful as the dance; but we cannot be honest without presenting it as a giant—black with the soot of the forges where eternal chains are made, and feet rotting with disease, and breath foul with plagues, and eyes glaring with woe, and locks flowing in serpent fangs, and voice from which shall rumble forth the blasphemies of the damned.

I open to you a door, through which you see—what? Pictures and fountains, and mirrors and flowers? No! it is a lazar-house of disease. The walls drip, drip, drip with the damps of sepulchers. The victims, strewn over the floor, writhe and twist among each other in contortions indescribable, holding up their ulcerous wounds, tearing their matted hair, weeping tears of blood—some hooting with revengeful cry; some howling with a maniac's fear; some chattering with idiot's stare; some calling upon God; some calling upon fiends; wasting away; thrusting each other back; mocking each other's pains; tearing open each other's ulcers; dropping with the ichor of death!

The wider I open the door, the ghastlier the scene—the worse the horrors. More desperate recoils. Deeper curses. More blood. I can no longer endure the vision, and I shut the door, and cover my eyes, and turn my back, and cry, "God pity them!" Someone may say, "What is the use of such an exposure as you propose to make? Our families are all respectable." I answer, that no family, however elevated and exclusive, can be independent of the state of public morals. However pleasant the block of houses in which you dwell—the wretchedness, the temptation, and the outrage of municipal crime will put its hand on your door-knob, and dash its awful surge against the marble of your door-steps, as the stormy sea drives on a rocky beach. That condition of morals is now being formed, amid which our children must walk. Do you tell me, that it is none of my business what street profanity shall curse my boy's ear, on his way to school? Think you it is no concern of yours what vile advertisements, placarded on the walls, or in the public newspaper, shall smite the vision of your innocent little ones? Shall I be nervous about a stagnant pool of water, lest it breed malaria, and be careless when there are in the very heart of our city thousands of houses, devoted to various forms of dissipation, which day and night steam with miasma, and pour out the fiery lava of pollution, and darken the air with their horrors, and fill the skies with the smoke of their torment, that ascends up forever and ever?

If a slaughter-house is opened in the midst of the town, we hasten down to the Mayor to have the nuisance abated. But now I make complaint, not to the Mayor or Common Council—but to the masses of the people, who have the power to lift men up to office, and to cast them down, against a hundred thousand slaughter-houses in our American cities. In the name of our happy homes, of our refined circles, of our schools, of our churches—in the name of all that is dear and beautiful and valuable and holy—I enter the complaint! If you now sit unconcerned, and leave to professed philanthropists the work, and care not who are in authority or what laws remain unexecuted, you may live to see the time when you will curse the day in which your children were born. My belief is that such an exposition of public immoralities will do good, by exciting pity for the victims and wholesale indignation against the abettors and perpetrators.

Who is that man fallen against the curbstone, covered with bruises and beastliness? He was as bright-faced a lad as ever looked up from your nursery. His mother rocked him, prayed for him, fondled him, would not let the night air touch his cheek, and held him up and looked down into his loving eyes, and wondered for what high position he was being fitted. He entered life with bright hopes. The world beckoned him, friends cheered him—but the archers shot at him; vile men set traps for him, bad habits hooked fast to him with their iron grapples; his feet slipped on the way; and there he lies. Who would think that that uncombed hair was once toyed with, by a father's fingers? Who would think that those bloated cheeks were ever kissed by a mother's lips? Would you guess that that thick tongue once made a household glad with its innocent prattle? Utter no harsh words in his ear. Help him up! Put the hat over that once manly brow. Brush the dust from that coat that once covered a generous heart. Show him the way to the home that once rejoiced at the sound of his footstep, and with gentle words tell his children to stand back as you help him through the hall.

That was a kind husband and father once. He will kneel with them no more as once he did at family prayers—the little ones with clasped hands looking up into the heavens with thanksgiving for their happy home. But now at midnight he will drive them from their pillows and curse them down the steps, and howl after them as, unclad, they fly down the street, in night-garments, under the calm starlight. Who slew that man? Who blasted that home? Who plunged those children into worse than orphanage—until the hands are blue with cold, and the cheeks are blanched with fear, and the brow is scarred with bruises, and the eyes are hollow with grief? Who made that life a wreck, and filled eternity with the uproar of a doomed spirit?

There are those whose regular business it is to work this death. They mix a cup that glows and flashes and foams with enchantment. They call it Bourbon, or Brandy, or Champagne; but they tell not that in the ruddy glow—there is the blood of sacrifice, and in its flash the eye of uncoiled adders, and in the foam the mouth-froth of eternal death. Not knowing what a horrible mixture it is, men take it up and drink it down—the sacrificial blood, the adder's venom, the death-froth—and smack their lips and call it a delightful beverage. Oh! That I had some art by which I could break the charm of the tempter's bowl, and with mailed hand lift out the long serpent of eternal despair, and shake out its coils, and cast it down, and crush it to death! But the enchantment cannot thus be broken. It hides in the bottom of the bowl; and not until a man is entirely fallen—does the monster lift itself up, and strike with its terrific fangs, and answer all his implorations for mercy—with fiendish hiss.

We must arouse public opinion, until city, State, and national officials shall no longer dare to neglect the execution of the law. We have enough enactments now to revolutionize our cities and strike terror through the drinking-houses and gambling-dens and houses of sin. Tracts distributed will not do it; Bibles printed will not accomplish it; city missionaries have not power for the work. Will tracts do it? As well try with three or four snow-flakes to put out the sun! We need police officers, common councilmen, aldermen, sheriffs, mayors, who will execute the law. Give us for two weeks in our cities—an honest city hall, and public pollution would fall like lightning from heaven! If you republicans, and you democrats, do not do your duty in this regard, we will, after a while, form a party of our own, and put men in position pledged to anti-rum, anti-dirt, anti-nuisances, anti-monopolies, anti-abominations, and will give to those of you who have been so long feeding on public spoils, careless of public morals, not so much as the wages of a street sweeper.

We are not discouraged. It may seem to many that all of our battling against these evils will come to naught. But if the coral insects can lift an island, our feeble efforts, under God, may raise a break-water that will dash back the surges of municipal abomination. Beside, we toil not in our own strength. It seemed insignificant for Moses to stretch his hand over the Red Sea. What power could that have over the waters? But the east wind blew all night; the waters gathered into two glittering palisades on either side. The billows reared as God's hand pulled back upon their crystal bits. Wheel into line, O Israel! March! March! Pearls crash under the feet. The flying spray springs a rainbow arch over the victors. The shout of hosts mounting the beach answers the shout of hosts mid-sea; until, as the last line of the Israelites have gained the beach, the shields clang, and the cymbals clap; and as the waters whelm the pursuing foe, the swift-fingered winds on the white keys of the foam play the grand march of Israel delivered, and the awful dirge of Egyptian overthrow.

So we go forth; and stretch out the hand of prayer and Christian effort over these dark, boiling waters of crime and suffering. "Aha! Aha!" says the deriding world. But wait. The winds of divine help will begin to blow; the way will clear for the great army of Christian philanthropists; the glittering treasures of the world's beneficence will line the path of our feet; and to the other shore we will be greeted with the clash of all heaven's cymbals; while those who resist and deride and pursue us, will fall under the sea, and there will be nothing left of them but here and there, cast high and dry upon the beach, the splintered wheel of a chariot, and, thrust out from the surf, the breathless nostril of a riderless charger